Lessons: Gen 3:1-21; 2 Cor 4:13-18; St. Mark 3:20-35
One of my favorite professors in seminary was named Roger Nicole. He was born in the French-speaking part of Switzerland and he maintained his heavy French accent. As a result when you sat in his class you felt like you were studying theology under Inspector Clouseau. Besides a string of degrees from some of the finest schools in Europe, he was an ordained Baptist minister. Each year he would debate a Presbyterian professor on the merits of infant baptism. Dr. Nicole did not believe in infant baptism so he would always begin his lecture by saying, “There are three types of scriptures. There are scriptures that mention baptism but do not mention children. There are scriptures that mention children but do not mention baptism. And there are scriptures that mention neither children nor baptism.” He would then get a wry smile on his face as if he just knocked one out of the park and there was nothing left to be said.
By contrast I served under a Bishop who was once asked by a street preacher if he believed in infant baptism. His response was “Believe in it? Why I’ve actually seen one.” And so will you today.
As you can imagine I agree with the Bishop but in honor of Dr. Nicole I want to take a look all three of our lessons today, which mention neither children nor baptism, and talk about both. I want to do this not as a defense of infant baptism but for us to consider more closely what we are about to do in baptizing Zoë and to remind all of us of the responsibilities that we bear as baptized followers of Christ.
The first and most obvious reason for baptism is for cleansing. That is why the Sacrament involves water. But is not an outward cleaning, it is an internal or spiritual cleansing. St. Peter puts it this way in his first letter. “Baptism…now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Baptism is a cleansing of our hearts and minds.
But why do we need such a cleansing? We need this cleansing because of the condition of our hearts that goes all the way back to the garden as we just read in Genesis. God created us to be in perfect harmony with Him but through the pride and rebellion of our first parents, that harmony was broken. They were not content to be in union with God they wanted to BE God and that original sin is in every one of us. It is a sin from which we must be cleansed if we want to be in harmony with God.
I’ve read a number of theories and debates about if there is actually such a thing as original sin and if there is how exactly it is passed on from generation to generation but those kinds of debates are a little too academic for me. To paraphrase the Bishop, if someone were to ask me if I believe in original sin my response would be “Believe in it? Why, I’ve actually seen it.”
He was way to young to remember this event but my son Andrew gave me a practical demonstration of original sin when he was about 3 years old. We were in the living room together and he was playing on the floor full of curiosity about the world around him. At one point I looked up as he was reaching for the wall socket. I was afraid that he was going to get a terrible shock, so I yelled “Andrew, don’t touch that.” He turned and looked me right in the eye and gave me the kind of go-to-hell look that you would expect from a rebellious teenager. Then he stuck his finger directly into the socket. By the grace of God he did not get hurt but it shocked me how a two year old can have the rebellious will of a full-grown Adam and believe me, I saw Adam in his eyes.
Call it original sin or give it another name but we all know when we are honest with ourselves that we need cleansing from it. We know, as St. Paul puts it, that we do things that we are not supposed to do and we don’t do the things that we are supposed to do. Too often we try to ignore it or even blame someone else. It is almost comical in this Genesis story how they play the blame game. God asks what happened and Adam blames Eve and Eve blames the snake and the snake, because he is a snake, doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
It never stops! We blame our parents and our parents blame their environment and their parents blame their genes. All the while God stands by offering us His grace and cleansing. The corruption within us is so great that God became a man and died on our behalf because of His great love for us. The Uncreated entered creation to win His creation back. It is this mercy that we call upon today through the waters of baptism.
A second reason that baptism is so vital is for the sake of unity. St. Paul says that it is by one Spirit that we are baptized into one Body. Baptism not only unites us to God but it unites us to one another and the living to the dead. Through baptism we enter into a covenant with God and are united with one another as the family of God. We just heard Jesus say, “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Both in the lesson from Genesis and in the Gospel we can see a pattern of division. In Genesis man is divided from God by the evil one and in the Gospel scribes attempt to sew seeds of division between Jesus and the crowd through false accusations.
And this is not just a pattern that can be seen in these texts, this is a pattern throughout human history. Look at how we even mark our history. We are so accustomed to division that we tend to reference our past by wars. The Civil War, known here in the South as the war of Northern Aggression, is still acutely felt. A local hero is Sgt. Alvin York from World War I. The “Greatest Generation” are those who fought in World War II. We use terms like “Vietnam era politics.” You never hear someone say, “Yeah that happened around the time that they found a cure for polio.” We are so used to division that we mark our time by it.
But it goes even deeper. Watch the news and see the pattern of division. It is the human condition, here, there and everywhere. ISIS murdering Christians, civilians rioting against the police, racial tensions are at the boiling point in a number of major cities, political parties demonizing one another, the 99 percenters hating the one percenters… this too never stops.
We try to address our division in our power but to no avail. The peace and love movement of the 1960 fizzled out and is mostly now remembered for all the famous folks who died of overdoses. John Lenon wrote songs to inspire unity and he was murdered. Dr. King took the political route to work for unity and he too was murdered. Utopian societies have been tried over and over again but they become historical sites like the one nearby in Rugby, Tennessee. Communism began as a utopian ideal to unite all people but between the Russians and the Chinese it is estimated that nearly 100 million were murdered trying to make it happen.
The one force that has for 2,000 years proven itself to bring people together, to heal divisions, is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus makes us one flock under one shepherd. It was such a powerful image at the Investiture Service for Archbishop Foley last year, when Bishops from around the world came to lay their hands upon him. There were Bishops from Asia, Africa, the Middle East and South America who all prayed over him. In the faces of those international Bishops was the true face of the Church around the world and it was inspiring.
In the Highly Priestly prayer that Jesus prayed the night before His crucifixion, He prayed that we would be one. Unity is not an event, it is a journey and that journey begins when we understand that by one Spirit we are baptized into one Body. Our prayer is that one day all people would come to know God’s saving love so that there will be one flock under one Shepherd. As baptized Christians we are to work and pray for that unity.
Baptism is FOR us but it’s not just ABOUT us. So a third reason why what we are doing here today is so important is that it is for the glory of God. We just heard from the Epistle “so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God.” We appropriate that grace through this Sacrament. We do this publically so that this grace will be extended to more and more people. And as there are more and more people giving thanks for the grace that they have received, God is glorified.
One of the questions that man has asked himself since the beginning of time is, “Why am I here?” And how you answer that question makes a marked difference on your day-to-day life.
To me, the saddest of all people are those who are so shallow that they never even ask that question. They go through life like spiritual zombies wandering aimlessly with the crowd. They have no idea where they came from or where they are going.
The next saddest are those who ask the question but end up with the wrong answer. Some have concluded that there is no real reason for them to be here and so they end their lives.
Many think that you cannot know your purpose and so they go through life looking for the next thing. They put in their 40 hours, living for the weekend. They work 50 weeks to get two off. They put in their 30 years so that they can retire. They spend their whole life waiting for the next thing. But at least they have a smart phones!
I love how the Presbyterians answer the question. Their book asks, “What is the chief end of man?” And the answer is, “To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” We are sacred beings because we have been made in the image and likeness of God. Life is sacred and so it must be about more than acquiring more toys. We have a purpose, we have a calling, and the most important part of our calling is to glorify God. That in turn brings us joy when we are doing what we have been created to do.
If you ever get the chance to be out with hunting dogs, by all means do it, even if you don’t like to hunt. It is a religious experience to watch them work. They have an amazing intensity as they follow a scent, their tongues bleeding from running through thicket with their tongues hanging out. They will run until they drop and you have never seen a happier creature on God’s green earth. The joy that flows out of them as they do what they are created to do makes you joyful.
We have been created to glorify God and joy will flow out of us when in our lives we are doing what we have been created to do. Today God is glorified in Zoe’s entrance into His Kingdom. Today there is yet one more child to praise Him who is worthy of all praise. Would that all Christians understood that this is their chief end.
With all respect for Dr. Nicole, he missed a few Scriptures as well as the testimony of Holy Tradition. He is in glory now so it is safe to assume he has been straightened out.
When Peter brought the Gospel to Cornelius, the righteous Gentile, Cornelius and his entire household were baptized. When the Apostles saved the life of the jailer at Philippi, he and his entire household were baptized. St. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians that he baptized the household of Stephanus and in Acts we are told that St. Paul baptized Lydia and her household. Some of the earliest Christian writings outside of the New Testament speak of baptizing infants and so for the first 1500 years of the Church, parents faithfully brought their children into their covenant with God, just as the Jews did before them. It was mainly a couple of groups in Switzerland and Moravia, during the Protestant Reformation, that doubted the validity of infant baptism. And let’s be honest, who can trust anything coming out of Moravia?
Scripture and Tradition very much support what we are doing here. In fact, more than support it, it commands it. Jesus’ last words were that we were to go into all the world, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Holy Trinity and teaching them to observe all that He has commanded. It is in obedience to him that we baptize Zoë today; for her good, for the good of the Church and for His glory. Amen.